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Published  04/04/2000
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Ken Done - Opera house and bridge

Ken Done – Opera house and Bridge

To Sydneysiders and visitors alike the man-made structures of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House have become icons with which the city is readily identified. The technology of the Harbour Bridge was recognised by artists in the 1920s as representing the future, the essence of modernity, even though Futurism as an art movement did not have a following in Australia. The building of the bridge began in April 1923 and was completed and opened during the Great Depression. It therefore became a symbol of hope.

Robin Boyd described it as "the most spectacular single man-made object in the land." Geoffrey Dutton wrote "for Sydney the Bridge was more than a mechanical link, it was always thought of as something organic. Through it the city would grow bigger and better." The Bridge is a spectacular and marvellous aspect of the Sydney Cityscape, a shape that punctuates, indeed completes the natural landscape.

For Ken Done, the shape of the bridge is central to many of his Sydney paintings; more recently it takes on the symbolic role as the bridge between white Australian and Aboriginal cultures. Ken Done is interested in creating archetypal images of the experience of living in Sydney, the place that he admires and loves, the main source of his artistic inspiration. The bridge heightens the movement and speed with which Sydney life has been associated which Dutton finds ironic:

"It is odd that the Harbour, although an enclosed area, is a liberating influence."

The bridge represents an elevated human presence in the environment. Like other famous bridges from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, historically seminal to human activity in the city, to the Golden Gate Bridge that spans San Francisco Bay, conveying the drama of technological advances. Sydney Harbour Bridge creates a focal point for the city and is central to the city's identity. Its obvious aesthetic qualities have appealed to Done throughout his career.

In 1980 two images were created by Ken Done that formed the basis of his design business. He designed a cover for the magazine Billy Blue, a coloured drawing of Sydney Harbour. In 1980 Ken Done held his first solo exhibition at the Holdsworth Gallery. Then several months later he held a second exhibition this time in his own studio in North Sydney. He a made simplified design from the Billy Blue drawing of Sydney Harbour Bridge and had it printed onto 12 T-shirts to give to the press who attended the showing. Almost 20 years later, the design known as "Classic Sydney" is still printed and has created a turnover for Done's Art & Design business of some 8 million dollars. Although in visual terms the T-shirt design bears only a limited relationship to the main body of his artwork the design using the motif of Sydney Harbour Bridge is vital in other respects. Behind the seemingly naive character of Done's early harbour drawings is an increasingly sophisticated grasp of impressions on visiting a new place, and the dissemination of cultural ideas via tourism. Presenting Sydney proudly as the perfect holiday destination Ken Done has made an ongoing series of works entitled Postcard from Sydney. The first, Sydney, Wish you were here 1984 employs the decorative border of his cabin paintings. Employing text on the canvas and painted with a light-hearted naivety, Ken Done's image in fact seeks to validate the Pop Art notion of culture that draws its inspiration from the wider social or public experience. Done's sheer pleasure for his subject also leads him to employ saturated, unrealistic colours; of the postcard paintings Opera House Evening 1996 and Opera House and the Bounty 1996 Ken Done states:

"I'm dealing with the colours of Australia, I've made the sea blue. Now obviously the sky is never quite that colour, and the sea is never quite that colour. And in truth, none of the buildings in the way I've drawn them exist. But it is very much the feeling of Sydney Harbour. It also shows, not only do I get great pleasure out of the sail - like floating quality of the Opera House itself, but that I feel that between the shapes of the Bounty, the old sailing ship, and a kind of modern ship, there's the history of Australia."

The clearly apparent visual splendour of the Opera House, Jorn Utzon's 1960s masterpiece, itself sketched out initially in 'billowy' forms, so redolent of sail and ships, set down within Sydney Harbour, has become a central feature of Done's Sydney paintings. The shape of the Opera House, and the manner in which the tiles on the surface of the building reflect the water and light effects of Sydney harbour provide endless possibilities in painterly terms. As a symbol of Australia the Opera House represents timeless beauty in organic form, epitomising the spirit of the city of Sydney and the cultural aspirations of the nation.

Many of Ken Done's Sydney paintings concentrate on the visual form of the Opera House and allude to the musical forms that he aspires to in his lyrical abstract paintings. In Looking Again at the Opera House 1995 Ken Done actually places musical quavers and notes on the canvas:

"Sydney by Night" is a piece of music that James Morrison wrote to my painting of the same title Š and it's a terrific piece of music and a great thrill to me. We did an album together, he wrote seven pieces of music to seven of my paintings Š to hear the musical equivalent of a painting is really exciting and "Sydney by Night" is a big gutsy sensual kick-arse blasting bamming, bopping song about Sydney. It's good."

In the painting James and Don at the Opera House 1995 Ken Done refers to his friends James Morrison and Don Burrows, two of Australia's leading jazz musicians. In the place of the pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge, Ken Done has created musical quavers and the lines of the bridge become a somewhat stylised musical score.

"I put James's trumpet upside-down in the top right-hand corner. The Opera House is spiky and boppy because it was a big jazz concert they were playing and I was trying to find the painterly equivalent of the feeling of that particular evening."

In White Tiled Opera House 1995 Ken Done creates a gold building against a magenta sea:

"To symbolise the capitalism and the wealth of the city itself and the difference between the old early buildings down at the Rocks and the big modern shapes behind them."

The detailing of the bricks on the bridge, and the dots on the Opera House, to represent the tiles make a reference to aboriginal painting, a reference that is explored more fully in the paintings that use the Bridge in a more metaphoric sense. Ken Done saw that in visual terms the Harbour Bridge and Ayers Rock were similar forms and so too were the Opera House and Olgas; two pairs of icons were visually interrelated. In The Bridge series 1997 Ken Done plays with the formal possibility of incorporating the haunting, beautiful forms manmade and natural, symbols of white Australia and Aboriginal culture on the same picture plane in an attempt to bridge two visual cultures. By integrating visual imagery for example, the Harbour Bridge and recognisable motifs from Aboriginal painting, in this case the dots imposed above the bridge, Done asserts the necessity of bridging racial differences. As formal compositions the paintings in this series are among the most harmonious understated images in Done's oeuvre, and among the most accomplished paintings of a contemporary Australian artist.

The political overtones of the Bridge paintings pertain to Aboriginal integration in white society and the obligation of whites to make every effort to understand Aboriginal culture. In East Circular Quay 1997 Ken Done turns his brush to create an image of protest against the bovine greed and blind mismanagement of building authorities in Sydney which led to the construction of an outrageous commercial building on the approaches to the Sydney Opera House. The Opera House, Utzon's masterpiece, has as we have seen been incorporated in many paintings by Done. In this work it is largely obscured by the overblown new structure so devoid of any architectural or civic merit. The painting is a painful comment on the individual's impotence in the face of large-scale corruption and greed.

In 1996, Ken Done held a major exhibition in Paris where his work was well reviewed by the critics. In anticipation of the exhibition he painted a series of Twenty-Five Views of the Opera House 1996. These small canvasses have since been reproduced together and are being woven into a tapestry by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne. It is no coincidence that Done should paint in a manner that would pay tribute to the artists of the Paris School whom he has long admired. Done has been criticised in Australia for being 'bourgeois' and 'decorative', yet it is precisely the painterly approach to light and life that inspired Monet, Matisse and Bonnard that so grips Done as a painter.

Twenty-Five Views of the Opera House are sensuous canvasses, laden with exquisite colour, reminiscent of Pierre Bonnard, yet also redolent with the colour of the antipodean paradise that he represents. Twenty-Five Views of the Opera House are a celebration of life and of the artist's growing pleasure and sense of accomplishment with his own work. They capture the mood of Sydney, profound feelings that are often ephemeral and elusive. The technical facility displayed in the handling of colour, the finest, subtlest pigments leaves one in no doubt that Ken Done is one the most accomplished and prolific artists working in Australia today.

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